Greenhouse Canada

LOOKING BACK: At Stages of Industry Growth

As Greenhouse Canada celebrates 35 years of publishing, we asked a number of horticulturists across Canada to recall some of the major developments they feel have had an impact on overall industry growth.

November 13, 2015  By Treena Hein

Robert Bierhuizen, of Sunrise Greenhouses, of Vineland Station, in Ontario in a photo from the early 1980s.

December 2015 — Helping Greenhouse Canada celebrate our first 35 years of publishing are several industry veterans. We asked them to comment on changes they’ve seen over the past three-and-a-half decades.

In 1977, Vander Waal’s father John started Rosedale Greenhouses in B.C. At the time, the business was driven by retailers and wholesalers who purchased flowers at the United Flower Growers auction.

“In the ’80s, grower population more than doubled. It was a great time. Flowers became a core produce item in most grocery stores in western Canada. Most transactions were grower sales via the ‘clock’ to a wholesaler and wholesaler sales to independents and grocery stores. Route trucks loaded with ‘spec’ product hit the road.”


In 1986, Stan Vander Waal started Rainbow Greenhouses. He says that in ’90s, “the western market continued phenomenal growth, but cracks begun to appear. At times, prices under the clock began to yield to growers less than they needed.

“Some growers began the shift to secure better pricing, and go direct to grocers and independents.”

“In the 2000s, floriculture goes big time! Big Box set the stage, joining grocers in the ‘lawn and garden’ market.

“True partnering becomes the way to grow business together … Growers develop annual programs with customers to suit advertising and sales targets.

The cost of energy drives growers to check out options.

Rainbow, among several other growers, installs wood waste systems and thermal shade curtains become standard components.

In terms of the future, Vander Waal says customers will continue to download SKU performance and management to growers.

“Ultimately, all sales will become PBS (Pay By Scan).

“Growers and suppliers will continue to partner and supply complete packages to retailers.

“There will be more acquisitions and mergers to provide national solutions and reduce costs through synergies achieved.”

Reviewing the last few decades of technological change, Eric Voogt of Westcan Greenhouses says that it’s gone from rudimentary thermometers and analog controls to fully integrated computerized systems that completely control greenhouse environments and can provide total recall of historical data.

“In crop production, we’ve seen better-performing varieties available over the years, shorter crop times, (better) economies of scale.

“Access to knowledge has become readily available to all growers via electronic media.

“Thanks to breeders and overall worldwide research and availability, growers and consumers have unlimited access to conventional and unique flowering products in cuts as well as potted plants.”

In terms of consumer trends, Voogt has also noted the switch to Big Box and department stores to purchase potted and cut flowers, as well as products directed to condo and apartment dwellers for patio and balcony use (smaller spaces).

At the same time, he says there is very little room for the smaller grower. He anticipates further expansion by large growers to be able to supply department and large box stores from coast to coast to coast.

“Over the coming decades, I think flower consumption will remain popular but will be controlled by a few very large growing and marketing organizations.”

Jones notes the many changes in equipment/technologies over the last three decades, including controlled CO2 input, heat dump tanks, cogeneration, energy screens, nutrient control systems, and the game-changing switch from soil to other growing media such as rockwool and coir.

“More recently, there is Wi-Fi and off-site greenhouse management technologies, advances in greenhouse covering materials that combine increased light transmission and better thermal properties, LEDs and variable frequency LEDs to tune in desired light colour, closed greenhouse systems, taller greenhouses, and RFID/just-in-time ordering/delivery systems.

“For greenhouse vegetable producers in particular, bees are now commonplace for pollinating tomatoes, smart readers are ubiquitously used to monitor labour and arrange bonus pay, hanging gutter systems are the norm, and much of the water used for crop fertigation is recycled.”

In terms of crop production, Jones notes a shift to significant use of seasonal offshore labour, movement of flower production to East Africa nations, and many new crops and varieties.

“Greenhouse bell peppers were not grown 35 years ago, and now are the biggest greenhouse veggie crop in B.C.

“Greenhouse-grown berries, in particular strawberries, are making inroads, and there are new flower crops such as gerbera and orchids taking over from previous main crops such as roses and mums. We see micro-greens in urban areas.

“There are also new crop training systems (e.g., high wire systems for cucumbers, associated with LEDs) and biological control advances.”

Big Box chain involvement has led to growers being squeezed. “In the ornamentals sector in particular, they’re requiring producers to provide POS materials and even go to ‘sale or return’ on what they take, plus requiring producers to do in-store product care (bedding, potted crops). Energy sources will change to more renewable options, energy use will be lower per unit of production, and urban agriculture will increase (rooftop farms, container-based and front yard production).

“I think we’ll also see more closed-loop systems with multiple income streams (e.g., aquaponics with fish) and more small, local producers. We’ll see new ways of food and flower production
(e.g., solar/wind/wave-powered units located on rivers and rooftops, along with production underground in cities next to markets), labelling of GMO food crops and 3-D printing of supplies and mechanical items for machinery maintenance.”

Overall, Bierhuizen notes a maturation in Canada’s floriculture sector since he and his family arrived in the country 39 years ago. “Coming from an era of heavy oil and steam boilers, lifting and carrying products in and out of greenhouses, hand digging and opening and closing windows by hand, being a walking temperature sensor, etc., [now we have] material handling equipment, production equipment, climate computers, H.I.D lighting, heating equipment and energy conservation. The list can go on and on since the level of technology is almost changing on a daily basis.

“About 30 years ago, I started to realize that if we stayed in the commercial potted flowering crops industry, it would become more and more of a challenge to maintain our profitability.

“We as growers have to be aware of what is out there in the marketplace and to follow the trends in order to stay up-to-date. To do a good job at that takes discipline and dedication, but it is crucial to survive.”

When he came to Canada, the potted floral sector was still in a very traditional crop production mode. The crop schedules were largely geared towards the major holidays. As well, there was not very much going on with research and crop development.

When the chain stores started in the potted flower sector, “that is what instigated the need for different crops, such as potted roses and begonias, among others.” Growers then saw the need to grow crops on a weekly basis schedule.

“That in itself, along with new crop production methods that came over primarily from Europe, instigated the interest for more research and development. We had to grow smarter because of our shrinking margins.… A lot was downloaded at the same time to the grower level, like bar-coding, product upgrades, labelling and product information, etc.”

In terms of future marketing, Bierhuizen foresees that the industry will have to get a more sophisticated approach and be more professional about it. “We also have to be aware that the consumer wants to know more about our products and that can have a big influence on what we grow and how we grow, as we have seen already with the neonics issue.”

He sees a bright future for the industry over the next 35 years. “Worldwide, we will see a tremendous increase in the number of middle class consumers. They are willing to spend money on luxurious items and feel-good items like flowers and plants.

“In the future, we will not be looking at a greenhouse as it is today. Most likely we will be looking at an enclosed building or greenhouse structure with fully integrated production systems, total climate control and ‘smart’ crop scanning devices. It will probably be an energy provider.

“In the next five years, I foresee that robots will make a breakthrough in our sector and will have a big impact on the overall production process.”

“I feel blessed to see so much change and be part of the greenhouse industry over the years,” says Sweetman. “I recall when there were still a few producers using topsoil, which they sterilized with steam in the fall for their spring use. Now soil is a dirty word. Roots now enjoy media that is made up of engineered materials designed to provide optimal physical and chemical characteristics for root growth and development.

“Do you remember the traditional 1201 inserts, 8” hanging basket, and bedding plants sold pre-bloom? Well, the 1201 are now jumbo four-packs, and 2.5” is moving to 4.5”.

“Will we see the standard size be a gallon pot? Hanging baskets are going bigger – 10”, 12” and now 14” is standard.”

Growers used to educate customers that the plants were better small so there was less transplant shock. Now the customers are educating growers on what they want, and that is instant gardens and colour. “My forecast is that soon customers will visit your website and check in to see how their plants are doing and how they are being grown.

Growers should never underestimate the power of colour, said Sweetman, and they should plant more vegetables.

On the structural side, Blom notes that greenhouses have become more standardized, with double poly houses taking most of the increase in production. This is particularly true for bedding plant growers, who produce primarily in the spring, when light is not a major problem. Vegetable growers, too, have built more plastic greenhouses than glass houses as production is concentrated primarily between February and November.

Blom recalls when some poly greenhouses in the ’70s were built with wooden posts and rafters and some growers had still some cold frames for hardening off the bedding plants. These are gone. Computers were not in the picture in the early ’70s. Analog controllers were up and coming. Then in the ’80s, computers made inroads. Heating the greenhouses back then was primarily with steam. Most greenhouses are now using sophisticated hot water heating systems for versatility.

HPS lighting was used primarily in December to February period for flower growers (especially roses) in the ’70s through the ’90s. Vegetable growers are becoming more interested in lighting due to market demand during the winter months.

There have been many changes in substrates over the years, adds Blom. In floriculture, it was not uncommon to have some topsoil in the substrate, leading to such problems as herbicide contamination and/or high salts. Many growers mixed their own substrate in the early days.

This has changed as peat moss companies are providing ready-made mixes based on peat moss and some amendments such as perlite and/or perlite and base fertilizers.

In the vegetable industry, the change from soil to substrate had been very rapid.

Of course, flat filling, pot filling and potting/transplanting have changed from mainly handwork to machines. Robotics came on the scene in the early 2000s.

Crop production has changed as well. Sub-irrigation has started to replace drip irrigation systems or hand watering. Many growers are using movable tables or troughs. It helps with spacing/shipping, watering and recirculation.

Another aspect of crop production is the use of IPM (Integrated Pest Management). This has been adopted first by the vegetable growers and now well more than half of flower growers have started to use IPM.

In decades to come, Blom believes smaller operations will all but disappear.

“New crops will continue to be developed, or at least new cultivars within a species. Importation of cut flowers will remain a fact of life.

“Flower exports will remain strong as long as the exchange rate is in our favour and export limitations are not imposed upon us.

“There may be some increase in organic production, especially in the produce market such as herbs and vegetables. But I think that this will remain a limited market.”

Recirculation of the nutrient solution and storm water control will remain issues for the next few years, although growers have made great inroads towards preserving the environment.

Mirza got involved with the greenhouse industry in Alberta in 1980, a time when vegetable crops were grown in prairie virgin soil under glass greenhouses in southern and central Alberta.

“The greenhouses were heated with open-flame stove pipes without venting and it was common to measure CO2 levels of over four to five thousand ppm. The soil used to be so cold that cucumber plants would not send roots below the soil.”

The fertilizers were primarily insoluble and mixed with the soil during rototilling. Cold water was applied by hand or some growers had sprinklers. That was an interesting starting point for the vegetable industry. There was no CO2 supplementation, simply the open flame burners.

In the spring of 1980, he started noticing that the productivity of cucumber crops was declining. “One grower hit 50 cucumbers/m2 and I was so excited. Finally, our research team found out that it was root-knot nematodes causing the roots to make galls and plants did not have feeding roots to support them.

It was also discovered that the soil treatment chemicals available at that time, such as Basamid, were not working to control these nematodes. Almost every grower had a steam-sterilizing unit and steaming did work for about three months – and then nematodes will move in from nooks and corners.

It was not only about researching newer growing media but also developing suitable nutrient management programs and for adoption by growers. IPM and biocontrol practices were also introduced at the same time.

During the last decade, many Alberta growers have started using supplemental lights for cucumbers and tomato production and now there is a fairly reliable supply of vegetables in winter.

“We also saw a significant investment into research greenhouses at Brooks, Alberta, and the research results are bringing out data on the use of HPS and LED lights and growing diversified crops. I am thinking that during the next few years, we will be adopting more water reuse technologies, adoption of more LED lights, and a boom to indoor production of leafy vegetables in vertical farms.”

Tiemstra says the biggest change in technology is the control of the greenhouse environment, and this has been made possible by the use of computers.

The biggest change to tomato greenhouse production came when bumble bees became the norm for pollination. Prior to that, a lot of time was spent with hand pollination.

Thirty-five years ago a tomato greenhouse would have consisted of one type of tomato, the beefsteak variety. “We have seen the vine tomato come into the greenhouse, followed by cocktail tomatoes, and later all the small grape and cherry tomatoes.”

Among consumer trends, customers increasingly want to buy their produce direct from growers – they want to know the story on the food they eat. As well, people want to buy local and this has brought about the interest in growing produce year-round in our winter climate.

“I think in the next 35 years we will see more winter production and probably new light technologies will make this affordable and possible.

“I also think there will be continued improvements in efficiency in energy use.”

 In the mid-’70s, the greenhouse area in Leamington was hit by a hailstorm that damaged the glass houses. When growers made repairs, a lot of upgrades were done which boosted efficiency.

“Growers also saw the benefits of plastic-covered greenhouses, with the energy crisis of the late ’70s and early ’80s,” says Khosla. “Research at that time showed that double-poly greenhouses were energy efficient, were able to out-produce the glass houses, and were also less expensive to build.”

Despite slightly lower light transmission, the diffusive properties of the plastic allowed better distribution of light.

“Many growers in the mid-’90s went to double poly greenhouses with forced ventilation (requiring fans) to cool the greenhouses in the summer. The increased cost of electricity resulted in growers switching to gutter-vented greenhouses cooled by natural ventilation.

“There were different greenhouse designs (round roof, gothic style, A-frame) implemented to improve light transmission, improve condensation control and provide all-around higher efficiency. Further research showed taller greenhouses gave better environmental control, so now they are mostly 22 to 25 feet.

These days, the price of glass greenhouses has decreased while plastic houses are more expensive, resulting in an increase in the number of glass greenhouses constructed over the past five years.

“However, the higher light transmission in the modern glass house can have a negative impact on production in the summer.

“Adjusting the cultural practices and using shade curtains allows high-quality summer production. There is an increased use of diffuse glass to increase light distribution among the plants in the greenhouse.

“In the late ’80s to early ’90s, the switch to hydroponic production improved tomato production to reach the present production of 60 and 80 kg per square metre.

“Methyl bromide was needed to disinfect the soil prior to production and with the switch to hydroponics, it was not required. As well, the switch meant water and fertilizer savings were achieved.

“The industry also brought in bumble bees for greenhouse pollination in the mid-’90s, and it was one of the fastest acceptances of new technology. It decreased labour and improved fruit setting and quality.

“Further research into the wavelengths of light transmitted through plastics allowed bumblebees to perform better in Ontario greenhouses.

“Ontario greenhouses now ship 70 per cent of their tomato crop to the United States.

“In the mid-’90s, pepper trials started and now peppers are on par with cucumber production, and Ontario is now a lead producer of greenhouse peppers in North America.

“Lettuce acreage has remained small, mostly niche markets, and eggplant production is small but increasing a little.  

“Growers have now become more advanced, with technology acceptance, computerized systems for climate management and irrigation, more automation, precision nutrient and water management, and also water recycling to reduce waste and be environmentally sustainable.

Biological control of pests started in the mid-’80s with the Encarsia wasp for whitefly control. Now, every grower uses biological pest control. Climate management has decreased disease incidence and pest infections. All these techniques together were the birth of integrated pest management (IPM), using multiple strategies to control insect infestation and disease incidences in greenhouse production.

“If current trends continue, we may see larger greenhouses, more automation and further lighting developments. We’ll see new designs in glass and plastic greenhouses, with more energy efficiency, and systems to capture sunlight for future use.”

Amicone has been in the industry since 1985.

“Back then, we started greenhouse production in soil using pink tomato beefsteak varieties. The crop production season was from April through mid-
August in more primitive-type low greenhouse structures covered in single or double wall poly, which at that time was considered new and innovative, moving away from the traditional glass-covered greenhouses.

“Today, the greenhouse structures are much more technology-driven with structures ranging in height from six to eight metres.

“Glass structures have become the new normal with diffused-type glass primarily because the growing seasons continues to be extended to where we have crops throughout the year with production extended, but still limited to ten months.

“The industry has seen many new crops with the addition of TOVs, cucumbers, peppers and more and more specialty crops.

“The packing today is being shifted more towards growers packing in the greenhouse with automated systems. Lighting will become more and more economical with the technology continuously being developed around LED lights, which in turn will allow growers to produce local greenhouse produce year-round, thus eliminating the production gap that in the early 1980s was seven months to today at two months.

With the installation of supplemental lighting, that will go down to zero months.”

Treena Hein is a freelance writer based in Ontario.

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